Author Topic: SOS DE MGY - Interview with Harold Bride, Sole Surviving Titanic Radio Officer  (Read 1194 times)

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Amazing interview by Issac Russell of the New York Times, April 18th 1912......

from the RADIO OFFICERS group......

Isaac Russell?s Remarkable Interview with Harold Bride, Sole Surviving Wireless Operator from the Titanic

On April 18, 1912, Isaac Russell scooped the rest of the journalistic world. The Utah native, who lived in New York City and wrote for the New York Times, talked his way onto the RMS Carpathia after it docked in New York with the survivors of the Titanic disaster on board. There, Russell interviewed Harold Bride? the ship?s lone surviving Marconi wireless radio operator?about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Without the services of Bride and the other wireless operator from the ship and without the invention of Guglielmo Marconi, it is extremely unlikely that anyone from the Titanic would have lived.  Russell?s telling of Bride?s story covered most of the front page of the Times the next morning, and it is almost certainly the best-known eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic.  When the New York Times reprinted Bride?s story a week later, the introductory note stated that ?it is the most graphic and most important story published during the tense days that followed the disaster.?  According to one account, ?every Saturday morning paper has paid compliment to the genius of Mr. Russell in securing the only account of this terrible calamity by Mr. Bride, and congratulations have been numerous from friends and newspapermen for the achievement.?

It was all improbable. Russell was an extraordinarily talented journalist who was not always able to stay in the good graces of his editors and publishers. He had served with the Utah Light Artiller y in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, where he acted as General John J. Pershing?s personal stenographer. He also had a brush with several Filipinos who had captured an American soldier that Russell freed by engaging with them, reportedly killing two Filipinos and receiving a serious head wound.  At the same time, at the age of eighteen, Russell started and edited American Soldier, one of the army?s first newspapers for servicemen. On his way home from the war, he talked Stanford University?s president, David Starr Jordan, into admitting him into the university. He graduated from Stanford in 1904 with high honors and returned home to Salt Lake City where he worked for several of the local newspapers, ending up at the Deseret News. Russell did not get along with either the business manager or the editor of that paper and believed (no doubt correctly) that he was overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated.

Eventually, Russell began submitting short articles to Collier?s Weekly, which had perhaps the highest circulation of any weekly magazine in the country, and Collier?s published some of his submissions. With the encouragement and letters of recommendation from Jordan and others, ?Ike? moved to New York City to seek fame and glory as a writer. Immediately after landing in the city, he began placing freelance articles with the New York World. Within thirty days after Russell?s arrival, the New York Evening Sun hired him full-time, and he felt secure enough to have his wife, Allie Farr Russell, and their infant daughter join him in New York. His work on labor and aviation issues soon attracted the attention of the Times, and in early 1910 he was lured away to write for the more prominent newspaper.

Russell rose quickly through the ranks of reporters at the Times, and the paper gave him many important assignments, allowing him to cover major political stories, labor strikes, the fledgling aviation industry, and a variety of other subjects.  Ike also began publishing longer articles on a freelance basis for many progressive magazines, including Collier?s Weekly, Harper?s Weekly, and Pearson?s Magazine, and developed professional relationships and friendships with influential editors such as Norman Hapgood, Mark Sullivan (Collier?s), and John Thompson (Pearson?s).  As a result, he was one of the few, if not the only, nationally recognized muckrakers who hailed from Utah.

At the time of the Titanic disaster, however, the somewhat mercurial Russell had annoyed his superiors. Carr V. Van Anda, the legendary managing editor of the New York Times, handled coverage of the Titanic?s sinking in a way that helped establish the Times as one of the preeminent newspapers in the world and him as one of the world?s greatest newspapermen. From the earliest reports that the Titanic had sent out the CQD distress call and had then ceased to send any signal, Van Anda?unlike other editors?believed that the grand luxury liner had sunk.  The White Star Line, which owned and operated the Titanic, took almost twenty-four hours to officially confirm that the ship had gone down. Just three hours after the liner sank in the North Atlantic Ocean and at a time when there was no confirmed report of the disaster, Van Anda had the Times announce in bold, front-page headlines, ?New Liner Titanic Hits an Iceberg; Sinking by the Bow at Midnight; Women Put Off in Lifeboats; Last Wireless at 12:27 a.m. Blurred.?

In the days that immediately followed the tragic accident, the Times continued its extraordinary coverage of the Titanic. Along the way, everyone learned that the Carpathia had rescued hundreds of survivors and had turned around to transport those Titanic passengers to New York, where they were scheduled to go, rather than continue its voyage to Europe. As New York City breathlessly awaited the arrival of the Carpathia, the paper?s city editor, Arthur Greaves, assembled the entire Times staff to mobilize what a historian of the Times described as the ?ultimate in disaster news coverage.? The newspaper instructed its reporters to gather and write stories about everything related to the sinking of the Titanic, including survivors? tales, the last deeds of prominent passengers, and relief efforts. Notably, correspondents learned that J. Bruce Ismay, the president of the White Star Line, had survived the tragedy. Greaves remarked that the Times might not get any information from the Carpathia, because the ship had ?studiously refuse[d] to answer all queries,? in other words, wireless messages that reporters, relatives, and even President William Howard Taft had attempted to have sent to the ship had received no response. Nevertheless, the Times was certainly going to try. No one yet knew if either of the Titanic?s two wireless operators had survived, and Van Anda was intent on interviewing any Marconi operator, preferably from the Titanic, but also from the Carpathia.

Van Anda and his staff went to unusual lengths to cover one of the biggest news stories ever. They hired an entire floor of the Strand Hotel, located at Fourteenth Street and Eleventh Avenue, just a block away from where the Carpathia would dock, and outfitted it with four telephone lines with direct connections to the Times?s ?rewrite desks.? The newspaper set up more telephone lines in a building at Twenty-Third Street and Eleventh Avenue, and chauffeured cars were ready to whisk the journalists from the pier to the telephones. Sixteen reporters were sent to the pier?though the New York Times possessed only four passes, and those passes would not get their owners very close to the ship.

In the midst of all this, Ike Russell, bright young star reporter on the Times, attended the meeting with Greaves and anxiously awaited his assignment to participate in the story of the century. As Russell later recalled,

?Newspapers prepared for the greatest story of their histories breaking under conditions where the most fascinating chapters might escape all their reportorial watchfulness. The New York Times, on which I worked, hired a hotel across the water-front street from the dock of which the Carpathia was due to come in. It stocked the hotel with telephones and stocked the telephones with reporters, who were ordered to telephone in every word they could get hold of, one about the crowds, one about the police way of holding them back, one about the pier [guarded by] throngs of marines, sailors, and soldiers, and some half dozen about the adventures of any Titanic passengers they might encounter at the pier entrance.

The Carpathia was a Cunard Line ship, and it was due to arrive at the Cunard Pier (Pier 54) in the Hudson River just west of the intersection of West Twelfth Street and West Avenue between eight and nine o?clock p.m. Russell eventually came to a terrible realization: ?At seven o?clock I became rudely aware of the fact that I had not been put on any schedule of the day, and was ?off duty? on this most important of nights! It was a stinging blow, and puzzling to account for it since I had never before been so humiliated. In a blue mood, I started from the office to buy a dinner, of which I felt a growing need.?

As Russell left the office, however, Van Anda stopped him, probably because he had no one else left to perform a necessary errand. Van Anda told Russell to go to the home of John Bottomley, the American manager of the Marconi Wireless Company, at 254 West 132nd Street, and ask him for a letter authorizing Times reporters to talk to Marconi wireless operators on board the Carpathia.  Van Anda instructed Ike to get the release signed by Bottomley and to take it down to the hotel that served as the paper?s headquarters for the Titanic coverage.

Isaac Russell set about his ?humble errand.? When he arrived at Bottomley?s Harlem residence, Bottomley received Russell ?with British sullenness and unresponsiveness. There was no request that I come in.? The Marconi manager even shut the door in the young Times reporter?s face as he decided whether to sign the release. The door was soon opened, however, by a different man, one of ?surprising GENTLENESS. . . . It was something that made you love to be near him at first contact.? Russell soon realized that this gentle man was the g reat Guglielmo Marconi himself, the creator of the wireless radio, whose invention had facilitated the survival of anyone on the Titanic.  Marconi recognized Russell as a newspaper reporter. In Russell?s account, Marconi was concerned about news reports that Marconi Company wireless operators on board the Carpathia had ignored repeated requests from William Howard Taft, president of the United States, for a report of whether his military aide, Major Archibald Butt, had survived the sinking of the Titanic. The requests had been sent by the Navy scout cruiser Chester. The media reports insinuated that the Marconi operators had failed to respond to the messages because they hoped to profit from stories regarding the Titanic when they arrived in New York.  Marconi asked whether the Times could get him a pass to board the Carpathia and find out from his operators why they had not responded to Taft?s inquiries.

Russell knew that the Times had only four passes, that the paper had already allotted all those passes, and that the passes only permitted reporters to approach the pier and not board the ship in any event. Nevertheless, he telephoned the Times offices and asked Greaves whether Marconi, whose invention had such an important place in the rescue efforts, could have a pass. According to Russell, Greaves was flustered and did not seriously consider who was asking for a pass. ??Tell Marconi nothing; all our passes are in use,?? came the reply. Russell did not want to discourage Marconi from visiting the pier, however, because he was confident that New York City policemen, United States Marines, and anyone else guarding the Carpathia would not follow instructions and would suspend all rules to let Guglielmo Marconi, savior for the Titanic survivors, onto the Carpathia.

Russell did not tell Marconi that the Times had no pass for him. Instead, he lied and said ?Yes, I have your pass for you. I can take you down all right.? Bottomley signed the release letter; unfortunately for the Times, it authorized Marconi operators to talk to anyone from the press, and the Times had hoped to pay $500 for an ?exclusive.? Russell told Marconi the quickest way to the Cunard Line pier and instructed him how to catch the Ninth Avenue elevated line, which he could board on 130th Street, just a few blocks away. Meanwhile, Russell hurriedly went ahead of Marconi and delivered the signed letter of release to the Times?s rented space in the Strand Hotel. He then met Marconi at the Fourteenth Street station on the ?El? and ?settled down for a beautiful adventure in which seeing Marconi aboard would be the objective.?

While the Times had no passes for Marconi, it did have a taxicab waiting at the ?El? station to transport him closer to the pier. When they reached the Cunard Line pier, Russell, Marconi, and a third man (a representative of the Marconi Company) were faced by tens of thousands of people: photographers, reporters, relatives and friends of Titanic passengers, and, mostly, onlookers, watching the end of the century?s worst disaster. New York City policemen, U.S. Marines, and security guards employed by the Cunard Line regulated the crowd. Russell knew that he had no pass, but he also knew that Marconi himself would serve as a pass for them both. ?Instead of being shut out of the great work of the night, as the paper had planned,? he rejoiced, ?I was to have a hand in it after all!?

(Part II follows......)

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(Part II)

As the three men tried to make their way through the crowd, Russell focused on an old New York City Police sergeant who was one of the initial gatekeepers, whose assignment was to ensure that no one would pass to the pier. Russell introduced himself and Marconi, but his ?words were lost upon my Sergeant, for he had seen Marconi standing behind me and plunged in, seized his hands, and was kissing them while tears flowed in big gobs down his cheeks.? The sergeant walked three blocks with the trio, waving off other policemen who sought to intervene. 

The three were across West Street and getting closer to the pier. They passed an Italian customs guard who bent down on his knees and began kissing Marconi, whom he recognized from photographs.  Russell pushed on. Policemen challenged them at the pier: ?The officer in charge of issuing permits to go upon the pier was appealed to. At first he had no time to listen. Finally he gathered what the request was about and came hurriedly to a place where Mr. Marconi had been backed against a pier buffer by a guard. The policeman invited him to come quickly through the door and past a long line of the suffering.? Marconi started sobbing as he met injured and traumatized Titanic survivors.  He had been scheduled to travel on the Titanic?s maiden voyage himself and would have done so, but he needed to work en route and believed that the Lusitania had better stenographic services on board, so he took that ship a few days before the Titanic set sail.  The obstacles to their progress were removed. As Russell described it,

What mortal power could issue orders to bid Marconi stop? Sailors fell before us. Eyes popped out and lips froze with one word [?Marconi?] half uttered upon them. Gaping guards to the right of us, gaping guards to the left?and gaping guards in front of?and beside themselves and all ready to die?to see that Marconi passed in spite of every order they had received. . . . The magic word had travelled along??Marconi? came up in a murmuring mutter from the guards ahead. And the ?living wall? crumpled before us as men pressed back to hold their bayonets out of Marconi?s way, and strive for a snatch at his hand or a long glowing glance into his face.

Russell, Marconi, and the engineer neared the gangplank to the Carpathia. The three waited as injured Titanic survivors were carried down the gangplank. ?The maimed were coming off now, dangling helpless arms as they wildly looked about, and were gently guided down the living lane of guards towards the rooms where friends were waiting.? Russell whispered to the head guard that ?the wireless boys? wanted Marconi. The ?hard-boiled? guard responded, ?Marconi goes ahead but you go back.? Isaac Russell replied that ?we are three?Marconi, his chief engineer, and myself a reporter off duty.? Russell had placed his reporter?s police card in the engineer?s hat to help him along in the crowd, but the chief guard, noticing the card and confused by everything going on around him, permitted Marconi and Russell to proceed while holding back the engineer. As Russell later recorded, ?Marconi and I were more lifted than shoved by loving guards with holstered-up revolvers, onto the Carpathia?s deck.?

Eventually, as the Carpathia neared them, Bride noticed that one person on their raft was dead. As he looked closely at him, he realized it was his colleague, Jack Phillips, whose relentless service had contributed so much to the successful rescue mission of the Carpathia. Bride was pulled up a rope ladder onto the deck of the Carpathia and received care for a number of hours. At that point, someone told him that the Carpathia radio operator was ?getting ?queer?? and wondered if he could take a turn on the wireless key. From then on, Bride had been sending, sending, sending. As he asked, ?How could I then take news queries? Sometimes I let a newspaper ask a question and get a long string of stuff asking for full particulars about everything. Whenever I started to take such a message I thought of the poor people waiting for their messages to go?hoping for answers to them. . . . I was still sending my personal messages when Mr. Marconi and the Times reporter arrived to ask that I prepare this statement.?  This was the story?clearly Bride?s?that Ike Russell told in his spare, graceful prose.

After Bride was carried off the Carpathia on a stretcher and Marconi and Russell also had left the ship, the ?Nabobs of the Times? took Marconi to a midnight dinner. Meanwhile, Russell sat down to his typewriter, both to tell Harold Bride?s tale and to recount how Marconi had come to visit Bride onboard the ship.  As Russell later described, he was ?on the fourth page of my story about the wireless boy. I saw that the ribbon was ?going wrong? and spreading ink about, and became aware that tears were falling on the paper in gobs as big as those shed by the old [police] sergeant? who guided Russell and Marconi through the crowds. He pondered how he would have knelt ?or at least should have bowed? if Marconi were still with him. Instead, Russell ?turned back to my typewriter. They say Literature is Truth touched by Emotion. I have written steadily for twenty years or more. If ever I wrote Literature, that was the night.?

Yet Russell?s accomplishment was not without controversy. According to him, the senator who later would lead the Senate?s investigation into the tragedy of the Titanic was reportedly ?furious? that Marconi and a Times reporter had boarded the ship ?against all orders.?  As part of its inquiry into the accident, Congress summoned Bride, Marconi, and other company representatives. Other newspapers claimed that the Marconi Wireless Company made an exclusive agreement with the Times for the story of the wireless operators. Harold Bride was accused of holding back information from the President of the United States about Major Butt, among other things, in order to profit from telling his experiences. Bride testified for hours before a congressional committee, acknowledging that he had received $1,000 from the New York Times the next morning for his story.  The committee may have summoned Russell to Washington, but never asked him to testify.

Russell?s view of the Senate investigation makes clear his biases on the question:

The simple honest Marconi was unmercifully pilloried by a U.S. Senatorial committee for this night?s work. A Senatorial committee worked out a theory that the wireless boy had ?willfully? refused to answer messages such as a message from President Taft asking how Major Archibald Butt was, and he ?willfully? refrained from sending details of the story so that with Marconi?s aid he could ?sell? the story on this eventful night for Gold! It was a curious theory to work out of that mania to send-send-send which kept the wireless boy with his hand on the sending key and never let him take thought of the receiving apparatus. But it was worked out and I have never seen such a crucifiction [sic] as the Senate committee made of Marconi in their ferocious attempt to make their case. I could not be called. The Nabobs of the Times were called?and all they knew was that they had offered money for a ?beat? and had ?got it?!

For his part, Russell wrote that the newspapers and the Senate committee both had ?accused the lad of holding back to sell his story. Many newspapers had wirelessed him fat offers for his story. He knew nothing more about them when he told it to Marconi than he did about the President?s calls that, along with all the others he had not heard?because he was sending, sending, sending.?  Russell and Marconi worked so hard to find Harold Bride for different reasons. Marconi wanted to know why his operators on the Carpathia had not responded to Taft?s inquiries regarding Butt. Russell pursued the story because he understood that the extraordinary fortune he was experiencing, being thrown into the situation with Guglielmo Marconi, offered him a unique opportunity to write an exceptional article. From Russell?s perspective, Times officials were happy to believe that the paper had landed an exclusive on Bride?s story by paying for it. As he described it, ?they were rather proud, I think, of the hypothesis put forward by the Government!?

It was Isaac Russell, working without assignment from the Times, who obtained the exclusive interview with Bride. He turned it into the best-known eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic largely through good fortune, but also through pluck and resolution?not through payment of a fee. The Times did pay Bride for the interview after the fact, but he had not withheld information to preserve the value of the interview. Ironically, as noted above, even the semiofficial history of the Times failed to correctly credit Russell as the Times reporter who obtained and told Bride?s famous account.

The April 19, 1912, issue of the New York Times?which ran as its lead article the story told by Harold Bride to Isaac Russell?went down in newspaper lore as one of the greatest issues ever published. Original copies of it became unusually valuable as a collector?s item. Many years later, Carr Van Anda was reported to have visited Alfred Lord Northcliffe?s Daily Mail offices in London. When Van Anda met the newspaper?s editor, the editor ?opened a desk drawer at his right hand. In it lay the New York Times of April 19, 1912. He said ?We keep this as an example of the greatest accomplishment in news reporting.??  The final ignominy Russell endured was that, though he received a modest $25 bonus, he received payment for the publication of the Bride story only once, even though the Times reprinted it on several occasions and newspapers and magazines all over the world described the account countless times.  In this era, the New York Times paid its reporters once per article, on a ?space? basis. If an article was good enough to be reprinted, the newspaper and its readers benefitted, not the reporter. As Ike recalled,

Newspaperdom is a funny world. The next Sunday, the Times reprinted the story by ?request? of people who wrote in by the scores that they broke down in the midst of reading it and finished in a flood of tears. My pay came by ?space.? On account of the huge exploitation of the story by the paper and its resale all over the English-speaking world, I asked if they could not allow my ?space rate? on this special supplement publication. ?No,? was the answer ?you got your space the first time and now the story is ours. We would have got it anyhow, we had all our plans made if you had not slipped in on them.?

In his unhappiness over his treatment in the whole matter, Russell neglected to acknowledge the congratulations and small bonus Adolph Ochs had sent through Arthur Greaves.  Russell?s preparation of one of the most famous newspaper stories in history regained for him the favor of most of his superiors at the paper, but Van Anda?s comment to him the next day when they passed in the hall was ??We would have got [Bride?s account] anyhow.?? 

After his work on the Titanic story, Russell continued to gain prominence, working for the Times for three more years and contributing muckraking articles to Collier?s Weekly,  Harper?s Weekly, Pearson?s Magazine, World?s Work, and other magazines. Then in June  1915, the Times fired him for covering a controversial speech made by Amos Pinchot.  Together with his better-known brother,Gifford, Amos had supported Theodore Roosevelt for years. By this point, however, the relationship between the brothers and the former president was strained, and Russell reported that the Pinchots had decided to break with Roosevelt.  When Roosevelt learned that the Times had ?summarily fired? Russell for writing the article, he ?never paused until he had hunted me up and got me a new job. And then for two hours he told me all of his dealing with the Pinchots.? Russell?s new position was with the New York Evening Mail, where he soon became city editor and also served as the paper?s food editor.

Though Isaac Russell left Utah for the big city in his late twenties, he maintained close ties with family, friends, and colleagues in the Beehive State. He acted as a ?contributing editor? of the Progressive Party?s local Utah publication, the Progressive, and submitted many columns on contemporary political issues.  From 1911 through 1918 and later in the 1920s, Russell operated a secret ?press bureau? for the Mormon church in New York and Chicago, cleverly defending the church and its leaders against attacks; ghostwriting articles, letters to the editor, and speeches for church leaders; and generally providing brilliant public relations services for the church.  In late 1921, he moved to Chicago, where he provided public relations, editing, and lobbying services first for the American Institute of Baking and then for Westinghouse Electric.  Always a whirling dervish of activity, Russell found time in Chicago to write a book and numerous articles on the history of Utah and the West.  Unfortunately, his health seriously declined in his mid-forties. In September 1927, he died of a heart attack in Chicago at the age of 47.

While Harold Bride?s eyewitness account of the Titanic disaster continues to be critical to understanding what happened that fateful night in April 1912, Isaac Russell?s preparation of that account has until now been largely forgotten. As he said in his unpublished manuscript, ?[The Nabobs of the Times] did not ask their reporter, either, so none of them knew until this writing, how [the Bride account] all really came about.?  The same is true of historians who have credited Carr Van Anda for masterminding Marconi?s visit to the Carpathia, who accused Bride and the Marconi Company of withholding information to preserve the value of the wireless operators? stories, and who even incorrectly identified the Times reporter who accompanied the inventor onto the ship. Russell?s recounting of the extraordinary tale of how the account was obtained corrects these mistakes. When Russell and Marconi interviewed Bride, they learned that the wireless operator was not refusing to respond to incoming messages to preserve a likely fee for his story; rather, the traumatized twenty-two-year old was so overwrought by what he had seen that he could not stop sending messages from his fellow Titanic survivors who were writing to reassure frightened relatives and loved ones that they were alive. Russell?s account is also contrary to the legend that has been created about Carr Van Anda?s supposed grand plan to get Marconi onto the Carpathia. It was not Van Anda at all. As Tifft and Jones wrote, it was ?luck and an enterprising reporter? who got the story, and that enterprising reporter was Isaac Russell.  This takes little away from the Times? managing editor?s masterful oversight of the paper?s coverage of one of the greatest news stories of the twentieth century, but it does provide an important correction. Russell?s descendants and relatives are justifiably proud of the remarkable role he played.
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